Frank Sinatra’s “Moonlight Sinatra” Reviewed
The most important thing to remember about Moonlight Sinatra is that it isn’t an earth shatterer, it doesn’t remain a lodestar in his career, it isn’t a shining anything. With a simple concept, songs about moonlight on an evening of romance, is a starry skyed treat and for his 37th solo album the artistry is in its complete ease. An album has never sounded more comfortable in its own skin. It is precisely what it is, and, from the title wordplay to his blueprint “The Moon Got In My Eyes,” this 1966 album, arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle and his orchestra, is elegant and lovely, it is pop music for adults and a real treat.
Though the first song is a misstep… not a big misstep. “Moonlight Becomes You” is forever etched in our minds as Bing Crosby seducing Dorothy Lamour (best nom de movies ever) in 1942’s “Road To Morocco” composed by Jimmy Van Heusen with lyrics by Johnny Burke. Even past that it has to compete with Ella Fitzgerald’s 1959 Get Happy!, or, if you don’t mind fast forwarding to 1994, Mel Torme’s (who, on a major bucket list achievement, I saw at Carnegie Hall with Peggy Lee opening in 1995) A Tribute To Bing Crosby. Frank’s version here is lovely but an also ran. Nelson rearranges the song, moving the pre-chorus so it starts the entire album with:
You’re all dressed up to go dreaming
Now don’t tell me I’m wrong
And what a night to go dreaming
Mind if I tag along?
A fitting encapsule of what Frank and Nelson set out to do, the same way Small Hours takes us to his bedroom in the middle of the night, Moonlight Sinatra invites us the earlier, a mid to late evening dreamscape of pop and orchestra glory, invites us for a walk in the moonlight with a new romance. The songs are minor American Standards for the most part, “Reaching For The Moon” is not the Irving Berlin of choice though it is lovely and right, “I Wished Upon The Moon” has lyrics by Dorothy Parker but not so you would tell, “Moonlight Moon” I’ve never heard before, and then there is…
If “Moonlight Becomes You” is fine but not the best version you will ever hear, it takes another Crosby song, “The Moon Got In My Eyes” from the 1937 (somewhat iffy) movie “Double Or Nothing”. Crosby sang it with a vocals only orchestration so relatively low hanging fruit for Sinatra, who plucks it with ease and reforms it as an answer to “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”. The beautiful mix of wryness and sadness is maintained impeccably on the album highlight.
If the rest of the album isn’t that, what it is how you take one of popular music’s greatest collaborations and give it a zen like ease. Frank’s previous album, The Man And His Music (here), was, between the CBS Special and the two major conductors, the Frank has a cold stuff, a chance to watch him sweat it out, to work hard at his discipline. Moonlight isn”t, it is so disciplined that it works through the songs and the concept with sublime ease. It moves from the string arrangements of Riddle’s band who are both here and there, at service to Sinatra who seems to glide through the songs. If you hear Frank’s opening to “Moon Song” you both hear him push and you hear him lean, strong and then laid back to the hook. The penultimate comes as close as Sinatra gets to paying back the song title with “Moon Love” adapted from not Beethoven but Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, and it is a fine take, like most everything here Sinatra doesn’t make it his own but he makes it perfect. And Sonny Burke (who wrote the songs for Disney’s “The Lady And The Tramp”) learns nothing from George Martin on using eight tracks, but that is perfect as well.
The songs work, the concept works, Linda Ronstadt would have died if Nelson Riddle had given her as much trust and bedrock as he provides Frank, and the entire half hour worth of songs is a life improving experience.